The 2017 Sam Houston State Bearkat football season is nearly upon us, and leading up to the August 27 kickoff vs Richmond, Bearkat Athletics will be taking a look at this year’s Sam Houston roster.

This is the third of an eight-part preview, position-by-position of this year’s squad. The Kats were selected as unanimous favorites to reclaim the SLC crown and boast five preseason all-Americans on the roster.

Linebackers: Justin Johnson, A.J. Davis, Hunter Brown, Erick Fowler, Royce See, Markel Perry 

HUNTSVILLE – With seven returners back from the 2016 Bearkat linebacker corps, including first team all-SLC choice Justin Johnson, the Kats’ middle line of defense looks to be in good hands going into the 2017 season.

Johnson started all 13 games for Sam Houston last year as a sophomore after joining the program from Blinn College and led the Kats with 97 tackles. He, along with fellow starter A.J. Davis and second-year man Hunter Brown, give the Bearkat defense an uncommon core of experience and toughness ready for Sam Houston’s August 27 opener.

Between them, the trio sports 67 combined games played with Johnson ranking 11th in the league with 7.5 tackles per game as a sophomore. He added a pair of sacks and an interception and even posted a 17-tackle performance at UIW that was the high-water mark for the Kats last year.

“Justin (Johnson) has become more of a downhill player and has matured as a leader,” SHSU linebacker coach Justin Roberts said. “His first year in the program last year saw him not be quite as vocal, but I see him taking on that role more this year and doing a really good job with it. His lateral movement and ability to find the ball is huge for him. He’s a smart player who understands our scheme and fits it well.”

Meanwhile, Davis has racked up nearly 200 tackles in his three-year career and has only missed one game in that time since playing in all 15 games as a true freshman in 2014. Add in the heavy-hitting Brown who spent last year at both linebacker and on special teams after transferring from West Virginia and the Bearkats will have a quick, hard-hitting group in the fold.

“Mike linebacker is a position that needs a lot of depth anyways because of the physicality of the position,” Roberts said. “We’d be silly to go through and think we are going to have the same three guys all season. We have the ability to move some guys around, and our mike and will linebackers are interchangeable so we’ve got some depth there where if someone gets hurt, we’ll be able to make some adjustments and not miss a beat.” 

The Kats will also be looking newcomer Erick Fowler to make an impact on the defensive side, a 6-1 linebacker who joined the program early in fall camp after spending last year at Texas. Fowler played in nine games for the Longhorns in 2016 after a decorated career at Manor High School (TX) where he was an all-American and one of the top linebacker recruits in the country for the 2016 class.

“Fowler moves around really well, especially for his size,” Roberts said. “He moves very well, as well as anyone we have at linebacker. He’s physical and a really intelligent football player.

Roberts also has high expectations at the buck linebacker spot with Royce See being the early frontrunner to claim the starting role, while freshman Markel Perry has been a pleasant surprise through the summer and the early portion of camp.

See played in each of the Bearkats’ 13 games as a true freshman and is taking well to the transition from safety into the position, bringing both the physicality of a linebacker and the athleticism of a safety in what Sam Houston uses in a hybrid role. Meanwhile, Perry brings a long frame and plenty of upside and has exceeded the coaches’ expectations to this point.

“I think Royce (See) could really be an impact guy for us at the buck linebacker,” Roberts said. “He has done a fantastic job after transitioning from safety to linebacker and is as athletic of a guy as we have in that group. Backing him up, Markel Perry, has come in as a freshman and done a great job. He came in and we got the summer with him and he’s having a phenomenal camp and we are expecting him to have a big impact on this defense this season.”

Collins Okotcha, Justin Gil and Carter Starcke are all also solid players who have been around the program who are expected add significant depth and have big impacts on special teams. Navone Gurley is another who he’ll have a big impact on special teams and get quality reps at linebacker as well. They are all just solid players all the way around.